Wed, 22 Mar 2000

Taking the high road on a bicycle trip out and about

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): A BMW is fine but if you asked Vaughn Ball he would probably say a bicycle was better, if not the best way to explore rural pleasures. An expatriate geologist living in Jakarta, Vaughn prefers to spend much of his leisure time cruising along kampung trails on a bicycle and discovering what people do in remote areas of this island.

After a 45-minute drive south of Jakarta, he parks his car and pedals off along a one of a number of bicycle trails beginning near the headwaters of the Cileungsi, Ciherang and Cikeruh rivers.

Thereafter there is nothing but a cool breeze to keep him company through miles of rubber and tea plantations. Waterfalls are spotted often, and along the way there is the continuous appearance and disappearance of river and rice valleys along friendly kampungs.

When he pauses for a little rest, he spends time picking up tricks from Sundanese villagers around the Sentul area on how to beat opponents in the board game Dam Das. He was attracted to the game after he came across numerous informal boards scratched in the soil, carved in planks of wood, scratched with chalk on rock or cement slabs and played with pieces that were usually no more than pebbles. Once he started to play the game, Vaughn found Dam Das to be a type of Chinese checkers.

He has discovered that the most beautiful section of the trail in this area is the Cibodas Passage, where he can inspect a small hydroelectric generator and visit a Singkong factory, though he prefers to peddle quickly across Kampung Ayam before the horde of chickens slaughtered there keeps him from wanting to see one ever again.

During his many trips to the area, he has made friends with people in villages tucked faraway in fairyland landscapes where often the most important economic activity remains collecting pebbles from the river, and where children play all day long on logs drifting on the water. He has basked in other simple pleasures as well, like watching women wash clothes in the lap of majestic mountains.

It was in the late 1980s that some avid mountain bikers discovered a random maze of trails heading toward Bogor from Jakarta, kicking off a golden age of exploration up and down the Cikeas River from its source to confluence. By 1991 the mountain bike fad had hit Jakarta in earnest, with clubs and giant rallies becoming popular.

Enthusiasts not only explored new bicycle trails through mud, heat and rain, but also mapped the paths they discovered. One biker, Geoff Bennet, put down all of his experiences in The Jakarta Hike and Bike Trail Guide, which came out in 1998. A Canadian geophysicist, Geoff arrived in Jakarta in 1984 to become an active leader in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. An energetic hiker, biker, climber, canoeist and naturalist, he left Indonesia recently, but only after introducing many adults and young people here to the joys of being outdoors.

On one trip, Ken Pattern, the Canadian artist with a special talent for lithography, accompanied Geoff through the countryside, mainly to see the "disappearing" bamboo footbridges. After the success of his Disappearing Jakarta series, in which he contrasted the old with the new, he was inspired to make a triptych of the bamboo bridges he came across during his bicycle rides. He titled one of them Ibu Seen Walking over the Ema Ami Bridge, named after the Sundanese woman who maintained the bridge, and allowed Geoff to use it on the front cover of his book.

The same bridge is lovingly called Arch Tree by countless bikers and joggers who find it a thrilling experience to cross it. Of the 40 or so bridges across the muddy brown turns and twists of Cikeas River, fewer than half are still made out of natural materials.

"Several are already swept away by floods and replaced by soulless spans of concrete and steel," regrets Geoff, who feels that each of the traditional bridges has its own unique personality, some being little more than rickety strips of bamboo and wire, while others are intricate, charming and sturdy arches airily suspended from one leafy bank to the other. Some of these bridges command a breathtaking view of Cikeas River, and from them many have happily watched the world float by. It will be a sad day if these wonders are allowed to disappear or are replaced.

Accompanying the book is a very useful map called Bridges Over the River Cikeas, with names whimsically invented by mountain bikers during more than a decade of exploration. The bridges include Underwear and Madison County. The first bridge which Geoff stumbled across back in 1988 was found to belong to a sharp-tongued Ibu Imas, who is said to beckon to the bikers from her "house of ill repute" on the east bank

It seems the best bicycle routes follow dirt footpaths, especially those worn smooth by motorbikes, connecting one kampung to another. As a beginner, it is safest to take the route from the Sentul Selatan exit, which meanders through five kilometers of well-paved roads and another five kilometers to get to the top of Bojongkoneng hill.

However, whatever route is chosen it better be chosen soon, before the trails are swallowed up by yet another one of the housing complexes which are fast replacing the fields and flowers on the slopes of the Sundanese highlands.